What now for the Occupy Movement?
Not much has been said or written about the Occupy movement in Britain since protesters folded away their tents and left the front yard of St. Paul’s Cathedral earlier this year. I had loosely followed the ins and outs of the High Court’s ruling to grant a forcible eviction and was planning to go down on the night the bailiffs and police were set to move in and turf out the settlers on behalf of the City of London Corporation. When the day of the eviction eventually arrived, I happened to miss all the relevant news items and ended up having to watch it on television. As it turned out, there wasn’t much to make of the whole scene, the authorities moved in and the protesters left peacefully. Meanwhile, news reporters on the ground scratched around for something to talk about and shuffled about the circumference of the cathedral’s quarters eagerly trying to sniff out any sign of the incendiary fight-back that some were expecting.
But that ‘fight-back’ never really materialised, namely because most of the protesters left peacefully when badges began to wave, but also because a large number of demonstrators who had travelled to show solidarity with the evictees had been cordoned off from the vicinity prior to the eviction. The closest things got to a ‘stand-off’ came when, as night became early morning, the last few determined demonstrators clung to a flimsy make-shift barricade. It was the last bastion of resistance, but it didn’t last very long, and for the police it was nothing more than a mild inconvenience.
It was hard to ignore the feeling that somewhere down the line the momentum had been lost, that the high-water mark had already been reached, and that this was the final reluctant limp towards an inevitable impasse. I was left with the feeling that the Occupy movement hadn’t really taken off, not in a practical sense. It certainly restored a sense of defiance, that until the Wall Street movement started had be relentlessly clubbed into submission, and it forced it’s, or perhaps our, grievances right to the top of the political agenda, making the rhetoric of the 99% part of common discourse. However, there was a vague sense that the initial buzz and fever it whipped up on the steps of St. Paul’s never lodged itself convincingly or realistically into the British psyche…not convincingly enough anyway. And even though the narrative it drummed still has the ability to resonate with most people, over time it was becoming clear that particularly its tactics had acquired a tendency to be treated with a mixture of cynicism and disinterest, that didn’t just sprout from the upper echelons of society, or, so to speak, the 1%.
Of course, the mainstream media’s casual aversion towards the Occupy protesters contributed to this swell of indifference. But, just as well, it is within reason to suggest that simple old-fashioned reserve was working against them, the suspicious assumption that any radical left-leaning ‘movement’ as multifarious and as far removed from the hardened business of electoral politics as Occupy, must be based on some wild, nostalgic sixties-style utopianism. However, as the dust begins to settle on the St. Paul’s episode, the more pragmatic critics of the movement, appear to have been somewhat vindicated. As its influence and presence, at least on the surface seems to have dwindled and dissipated, in roughly equal measure, you get the impression that perhaps some element of conventional political engagement and strategizing was needed after all. Not necessarily to win over with the hostile middle-Englander, but to unify the various strands within the movement. And, perhaps, though you have to stretch the imagination a bit further, become a political party – whose more official presence and pressure from the fringes of mainstream politics may yield more tangible results where they count most. It is certainly something that the far right never hesitate to do, and they do it well enough.
But it’s not hard to see why this route hasn’t been taken, after all, Occupy built itself on an organic community of protesters who had decided to eschew mainstream politics altogether. To even view Occupy even within the realms of ‘proper politics’, for lack of a better phrase, would be missing the point. It began on the basis, that if the system is morally bankrupt, then a different approach would have to be espoused. I posited the notion of entering into party politics to Clive Menzies, a regular speaker at the old St. Paul’s site and who is active in the Economics Working Group and recently set up a Critical Thinking course. He explained to me that, “the thing to recognise is that occupy represents a huge spectrum of opinion, there are those who are more libertarian, if you like, in their views and those who are further to the left, and those who fall somewhere in between, so in terms of presenting a unifying political ideology, that’s not what Occupy is there for. It is there to alert people – a lot of the educational work that is being done is there to explain to people what is going, because the messages we get through the mainstream media are often distorted.”
But where is the movement now? Most people would be tempted to say that as the tents were cleared from the Cathedral, an immediate vacuum opened up. But Clive went on to tell me that, “contrary to what the mainstream media would have one believe, when the physical presence ceased, activities still continued. There also are a few spin-off’s from Occupy, there are a number of activist groups that are sort of tangentially involved with Occupy, some which pre-existed before Occupy occurred last October, some which have emerged since.” There is for example, the Economic Literacy Group, a pilot project, which teaches various groups of people about what’s going on around the world, and if the pilot is successful, it is set to be rolled out across the country. So the Occupy movement hasn’t exactly fragmented, rather it has taken to providing a sort of over-arching umbrella for a range of other activities, only this time out the reach of the media headlights and without the symbolic imagery. Clive confessed, “clearly without a physical presence it is far more difficult to register on the mainstream media. However, it is also fair to say, we are going through a stage of review at the moment whilst all these activities are going on, as to how we rebuild or extend the momentum that that started about a year ago and how we energise the bulk of the population, who may not realise that Occupy is still very much here and active.”
The general spirit that the Occupy movement dug up and put into motion is still floating around in the ether, whether it’s just hanging there or is being mobilized is hard to tell. There is still certainly an organized Occupy initiative, with people on the ground busy doing important grassroots work, whilst the movement considers its broader fate. Clearly, the prospect of Occupy being involved in the nuts and bolts of mainstream politics doesn’t seem like it is going to happen any time soon at least, and perhaps that’s the way it should stay. But there is a case being made for it, mainly by those weary that the movement has already been reduced to a mere footnote in history, a short-lived symbolic phenomenon that might have had its chance and missed it. It would certainly be an interesting trip. For now though, the long, hard process of trying to salvage the movement’s momentum goes on. The next big wave will roll back in, just how or when isn’t yet discernible.